Gone With the Schwinn

July 05th, 2008 | Category: Marginalia, Me

My friend Ben Hiltzheimer once said that riding a motorcycle was a such head-clearing experience because while riding all you could think about was not dying. Riding a fixed-gear bicycle is similarly head-clearing. It’s chess not checkers. Being connected to the bike and its motion feels right in a way that riding bikes with freewheels and brakes never did, but you have to think several moves ahead.

As Sheldon Brown put it,

It takes a bit of practice to become comfortable on a fixed gear. Most cyclists, trying it for the first time, will automatically try to coast once the bike gets up to a certain speed. The bike will not allow this, and it is disconcerting. It takes a couple of weeks of regular riding to unlearn the impulse to coast, and become at ease on a fixed gear.

For those that don’t know, a fixed-gear bike is one that has a single gear that is directly connected to the rear wheel. Whereas a bike equipped with a freewheel or a coaster brake coasts when one stops pedaling, a fixed-gear setup does not. Whether speeding up, cruising along, or slowing down (or trying to stop), the rider is always pedaling. The fixed connection of the gears provides a direct connection between road and legs — by way of wheel, gears, chain, cranks, pedals, and feet (proving cataclysmic to some).

Having ditched my BMX bike when I left Portland (I moved my few belongings via postal service and myself via airplane), I’ve been in need of a new two-wheeled fix. A road bike was the order of the day (I’m an adult now), but growing up on a BMX bike and having ridden a few road bikes here and there recently, I found myself bored of just riding. I wanted more of a challenge, so I decided I’d give this whole fixed-gear thing a try.

Like many fixed-gear projects, this one started with an old specimen. My Moms found a 1972 Schwinn Collegiate at a thrift store for fifteen dollars. It had all of its original parts and accessories and looked like it’d barely been ridden in its thirty-six years.

First, I took off most of the extras (e.g., fenders, chainguard, brakes, etc.) and switched the stock rattrap pedals for a small, BMX platform-style set. I found an old Trek mountain bike someone had dumped and reappropriated its riser bars. Next, I replaced the wheels, which has been the only real expense so far, but you can’t skimp on wheels. These are 700c Weinmann’s with no-name, high-flange hubs and a fourteen-tooth rear sprocket.

I won’t lie and say that going from twenty-inch wheels to 700 centimeter wheels isn’t a major adjustment, but some aspects of the transition have felt quite natural. The quiet of the bike is welcome after the few weeks of having an actual freewheel. I’ve never run one on any of my BMX bikes. I always had a coaster brake or a freecoaster (both of which allow you to coast both ways, quite the opposite of the fixed-gear). The Zen-like attention required to ride this bike is very similar to the one required for flatland moves on a BMX bike.

Aside from a few more minor upgrades (e.g., seat, seatpost clamp, and eventually cranks and pedals), here’s my completed conversion:

Many thanks to Patrick Barber for information and inspiration and Jeff Coleman at The Bike Shop for hooking up parts. If you’re at all curious about the fixed-gear experience, it’s well worth checking out.

Further Posting: